Whether or not we should eat meat is, clearly, a serious question in the domain of practical or applied ethics. Aside from the obvious animal welfare issues, advocates of the vegetarian diet may also now be prone to argue that meat production is a hugely inefficient use of natural resources, and that in a world of burgeoning population growth, not to mention the potential shrinking of habitable land mass following from the byproducts climate change (rising sea-levels, increased desertification), a meat-based diet is environmentally unsustainable.
However, even accepting these arguments, a recent report in the Times suggests that we might, in the future, be able to tuck into a steak – or at least sausages – without being afflicted by the niggling pangs of conscience. The article states that scientists at Eindhoven University in Holland have, for the first time, succeeded in ‘growing meat’ in a laboratory for the first time. Cells whose natural role is to repair damaged tissue (myoblasts) were extracted from the muscle of a live pig, and then incubated in a ‘nutritious’ (to the cells, I would presume) stew that is currently ‘derived from the blood products of animal foetuses, although the intention is to come up with a synthetic solution’. The upshot?
“The result was sticky muscle tissue that requires exercise, like human muscles, to turn it into a tougher steak-like consistency.”
If the method can be perfected (I will leave the notion of ‘exercise’ here to your imagination), we will have a source of meat-protein with little-to-none of the bad ethical side-effects of the real deal. (At least, this is the reported view of PETA, notorious for taking a hard-line on animal welfare issues.)
The downside? OK, so admittedly it might not sound all that appealing so far (the scientists themselves have, it is reported, so far not tasted their handiwork). But before we are too quick to write-off synthetic meat, one might suggest that the above description of laboratory produced meat is probably at the very least no less appetising than an equivalent description of modern factory farming practice.
Environmental Ethics: An Overview
By Katie McShane, Colarado State University
(Vol. 4, May 2009)